8.3. Component Considerations
With our design criteria in mind, we set out to choose the best components for the budget PC system. The following sections describe the components we chose, and why we chose them.
8.3.1. Case and Power Supply
Antec SLK-1650B Mini-Tower Case (http://www.antec.com)
It's easy to spend too little on the case and power supply for a budget system. We've seen cases with 350W power supplies advertised for as little as $25, but we wouldn't even consider using such shoddy products. Cheap cases are bad enough. Things don't fit properly, and they're full of burrs and sharp edges that make working on them dangerous. But cheap power supplies are worse. It's simply not possible to build a reliable system using a cheap power supply.
Plan to spend at least $65 or so on a decent case and power supply for a budget system. (Most of that cost is in the power supply.) We looked at budget cases from several manufacturers, but as usual we found that Antec had the best product for the money. We chose the Antec SLK-1650B mini-tower case, which includes a good 350W ATX 2.0 power supply.
We knew that Antec was about to discontinue the Solution Series SLK-1650B case in favor of the New Solution Series NSK4400 model, but we chose the SLK-1650B anyway. We think the SLK-1650B is a very attractive case, although the NSK4400 is prettier and includes a 380W power supply (versus 350W in the SLK-1650B). But we were able to find the SLK-1650B on sale for $62, about $10 less than the NSK4400. The 350W power supply in the SLK-1650B is perfectly adequate for the modest hardware configuration we planned to use, and the case features are otherwise suitable, so we decided to save the $10 for use elsewhere.
ASRock K8NF4G-SATA2 (http://www.asrock.com)
As always, the first decision to make in choosing a motherboard is which processor you intend to use. Our budget was $85 for the processor, which limited us to an AMD Sempron or Intel Celeron model. Dollar for dollar, the Sempron outperforms the Celeron significantly, so we decided to buy the fastest Sempron we could find for $85. That meant we needed a Socket 754 motherboard.
Although AMD has de-emphasized Socket 754 in favor of Socket 939 and the new Socket AM-2, there were still many Socket 754 motherboards to choose among. Our requirement for integrated video fast enough to support Vista narrowed our choices down to motherboards that provided nVIDIA 6100 or 6150 integrated video. Among those, the ASRock K8NF4G-SATA2 was the standout choice.
ASRock is the value brand of ASUS, whose motherboards we've used for years and come to depend on. We had no experience with ASRock products, so we did a great deal of research before deciding to use this motherboard. We found that ASRock products were generally well thought of among their users, and that relatively few problems had been reported. Based on our confidence in ASUS, we decided to give the ASRock board a try. (Our subsequent torture-testing on three samples proved the ASRock board was indeed very stable.)
Although the ASRock K8NF4G-SATA2 motherboard lacks many of the features popular among performance enthusiasts and gamers, it has exactly the feature set we were looking for: nVIDIA GeForce 6100 integrated video with support for DX9 and Pixel Shader 3.0, a PCI Express x16 slot for future video upgrades, two SATA ports with RAID 0/1 support, good multichannel audio, an integrated 100BaseT network adapter, four USB 2.0 ports, etc. At about $60, it was a perfect fit for our needs and budget.
AMD Sempron 3100+ (http://www.amd.com)
With $85 allocated to the processor, our choices are limited to single-core "value" processors. Intel sells several Celeron models in that price range, but Celeron processors simply can't compete with comparably priced AMD Sempron processors. Semprons are noticeably faster than Celerons for most tasks, consume less power, and run cooler.
AMD produces two classes of Sempron processors. The so-called K7 Semprons are really just rebadged Athlon XP processors. They use the obsolete Socket A (462), and are a poor choice for a new system (although they are excellent upgrade processors for older systems). Conversely, K8 Semprons are essentially Athlon 64 processors with smaller L2 caches, and are an excellent choice for a new budget system.
8.3.4. CPU Cooler
Spire SP792B12-U KestrelKing V (http://www.spirecoolers.com)
The Spire SP792B12-U KestrelKing V is the CPU cooler you want for this project. Unfortunately, it's not the CPU cooler we ended up using. We originally intended to order the retail-boxed version of the Sempron processor, which includes a bundled CPU cooler. But, while the bundled CPU cooler is reasonably effective at cooling the processor, there are third-party coolers available that are much quieter and cool more efficiently than the stock unit.
We'd used the Arctic Cooling ACS64U Silencer 64 Ultra successfully on other Sempron systems. When we checked prices, we found that the ACS64U with an OEM Sempron processor together cost only $4 more than a retail-boxed Sempron. We decided that better cooling and quieter operation was worth the $4 difference, so we ordered the ACS64U and thought nothing more about it.
Until, that is, it was time to build the system. As we installed the processor and cooler, we found another motherboard component was so close to the processor socket that the ACS64U wouldn't fit. Ordinarily, we'd simply have ordered a replacement heatsink, such as the Spire SP792B12-U KestrelKing V. But this time we were stuck. We desperately needed a Windows box to run some Windows-only software that was required for another book project. Deadlines were looming. It was Sunday afternoon, and our editor was expecting a chapter from us the next day.
We decided to do the best we could with what we had to work with. We were able to make the Arctic Cooling ACS64U fit, but only by doing some minor surgery on the motherboard. We ended up with a functional system, although there was no way to hide the surgery we'd done. We almost didn't bother to shoot images of the build, because Robert intended to order a new motherboard and rebuild the budget system from scratch. Then, as Robert started hacking on the motherboard, Barbara starting shooting images. When Robert asked why she was bothering to shoot images of a project we wouldn't be using in the book, Barbara replied that she thought we should show the project, warts and all. "Nothing wrong with letting people know that we sometimes screw up, too."
So we decided not to gloss over the ugly parts, and to show our readers what we really did. And it turned out well, too. The CPU temperature at idle is only 5°C over ambient, and the system runs cool even under heavy load. It's also very quiet, barely audible from less than a meter away in a quiet room. Even so, we don't recommend you do what we did. Building the system is much simpler if you use the Spire cooler.
Crucial PC3200 DDR-SDRAM (http://www.crucial.com)
Although many low-end mass-market systems are equipped with only 256 MB of RAM, that's insufficient even for a budget system. You can load and run Windows XP and one or two applications in 256 MB, but having so little memory noticeably hampers performance and reduces stability. Doubling the memory to 512 MB pays big dividends for little additional cost.
Unlike Intel processors, which really need dual-channel memory to provide their best performance, the AMD Sempron is quite happy with single-channel PC3200 DDR-SDRAM. Like the Athlon 64, the Sempron has a built-in memory controller, but the Sempron memory control is single-channel (versus dual-channel for the Athlon 64). That means there's no advantage to installing memory modules in pairs in a Sempron system. That's fortunate, because the motherboard we chose has only two memory slots, and we'd like to leave one of them open for future expansion.
So we decided to install one 512 MB PC3200 DDR-SDRAM DIMM in our budget system. If we install Windows Vista on this system later, we can fill the second memory slot with another 512 MB DIMMa total of 1 GBto accommodate the higher memory requirements of Vista.
Crucial memory is fast, reliable, inexpensive, and readily available. We've used Crucial memory for more than a decade in hundreds of systems, and it's never let us down. Accordingly, we chose one Crucial CT6464Z40B PC3200 512 MB DIMM for this system.
8.3.6. Video Adapter
Integrated nVIDIA GeForce 6100
The nVIDIA GeForce 6100 video integrated on the ASRock motherboard provides excellent 2D display quality and reasonably good 3D performance for casual gaming and similar tasks. The ASRock motherboard includes a PCI Express x16 video adapter slot, so if necessary we can upgrade the video down the road by installing an inexpensive PCIe video adapter. We don't expect that to be necessary, even if we decide at some point to replace Windows XP with Vista. But if it does turn out that Vista requires more horsepower than the GeForce 6100 video provides, even a $30 standalone video adapter is likely to be more than sufficient.
8.3.7. Hard Disk Drive
Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 SATA 80 GB (http://www.seagate.com)
Many inexpensive consumer-grade systems use 5,400 RPM hard drives, which are noticeably slower than mainstream 7,200 RPM units. If we were attempting to cut costs to the bone, we might have chosen something like a 20 GB Seagate ST320014A U Series X drive for $30 or so.
We decided it was sensible to spend an extra $20 to get a 7,200 RPM 80 GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 SATA drive. That $20 is significant on a system with a base budget of $350, but the extra $20 buys us four times as much disk space and about twice the speed. It would be foolish to cripple system performance to save so little money.
8.3.8. Optical Drive
NEC ND-3550A DVD writer (http://www.nec.com)
DVD burners are so inexpensive nowadays that it seldom makes sense to install a less capable optical drive, even in a budget system. Among the many inexpensive DVD writers available, we chose the NEC ND-3550A for its combination of features, performance, reliability, and price.
8.3.9. Keyboard and Mouse
Logitech Internet Pro Desktop (http://www.logitech.com)
Personal preference outweighs all else when choosing a keyboard and mouse. No one can choose the "best" keyboard and mouse for someone else. That said, we had to pick a "budget" keyboard and mouse for our budget PC. We wanted something in the sub-$20 range that included a decent keyboard and a reliable optical mouse. Our favorite among inexpensive keyboard/mouse combos is the Logitech Internet Pro Desktop, for which we paid $17. If you prefer a cordless keyboard/mouse combo, buy the Logitech Cordless Internet Pro Desktop, which costs $25 or so.
Logitech S-100 2.0 speaker system (http://www.logitech.com)
Even a budget PC needs a decent set of speakers, but we can realistically spend no more than $10 or $12 on speakers. In that price range, the Logitech S-100 2.0 speaker set has the best sound quality we've heard.
NEC AS700 17" CRT (http://www.necmitsubishi.com) Samsung 793DF 17" CRT (http://www.samsung.com) ViewSonic E70 17" CRT (http://www.viewsonic.com)
As much as we'd love to have a 19" LCD display, budget limits us to a 17" CRT monitor. We allocated $120 to the display, and there are three standout choices in that price range. The NEC AS700, Samsung 793DF, and ViewSonic E70 all provide excellent display quality and (something rare with inexpensive displays) a 3-year warranty on the tube, parts, and labor. All three of these models are excellent. They're comparable in features and performance, so choose whichever is most easily available or least expensive.
Table 8-1 summarizes our component choices for the budget PC system.